THE BULLET SLICED through the fleshy part of Cullen’s upper arm, igniting a searing pain that spread through his chest. He grasped his arm and hot, sticky blood oozed between his fingers. He weaved as a belly spasm threatened to double him over. Sweat streamed from his forehead and dripped into his eyes. Jess’s fist plowed into his chest, cracking his ribs and sending him tumbling backwards. He teetered on the cliff’s edge. His hands flailed for a branch, a ledge, anything to grab, but only air slipped through his fingers. He flipped end-over-end, hitting the water on his upper back. The impact drove the breath from his body.
Death held him in its embrace.
Thousands of images flashed like shooting stars in a monolithic review of his existence. His life compressed into seconds. All went dark. A single point of light flickered, then turned brilliant. A light not of this world.
Cullen, take my hand. Swim to me brother. I will help you.
Kristen? I’m caught in the vines.
Take my hand.
Cullen pulled himself from the river and collapsed face down on the bank. He rolled over, wincing with pain and knew no more.
THE SUN HAD dimmed to an eerie glow in the western sky by the time Cullen groaned into consciousness. Had his head and a sledgehammer collided? His stomach reared and spilled its contents in violent spasms. What the hell happened? Where was Kit? Jumbled thoughts couldn’t push past the pain in his head and trying to sort out the situation only increased the pounding.
He surrendered and sank back into blackness.
Hours later, he opened his eyes. Smooth moonlight formed a canopy over his hideaway in the bushes. He heard lapping water nearby. Wherever he was, he was cold, damp, and bleeding.
He tried to sit, but the slightest movement drove spikes of agony deeper into his brain. Then somewhere in his broken memory he recalled Kit’s Tylenol. She always used the round, white tablets to ease pain. He rummaged in the backpack he’d slipped off his shoulders when he climbed ashore, brushing aside waterproof bags of bandages and creams until he found the small bag with a bottle of pain medication. He took two pills, bandaged his arm, then closed his eyes.
Consciousness arrived with the sun. The head pain remained. Even though he didn’t want food, he knew he had to eat. He also had to clear his head so he could remember what happened. He sat and leaned against a tree while he ate an MRE labeled beef stew. It was the worst tasting food he’d ever put in his mouth, but Kit had said it would give him the nutrients he needed. Five minutes after he finished, he vomited again. The pain in his head intensified. He swallowed two more Tylenol and fell asleep.
The sun rose, set, and rose again and maybe it rose for a third day or even a fourth. He lost track of time. Lost track of everything except pasty food and little white pills.
And then the dreams started. Kit was manhandled. He was shot.
Panic and fear squeezed his mind with large deadly hands. Heat rushed through him in surges of liquid fire. Kit was in danger. Her terror-filled eyes flashed before him. He had to find her. With excruciating effort, he pulled himself to his feet, but his legs wouldn’t support his weight. He fell to his knees, jarring his head. Agonizing screams scared the birds and squirrels. Exhausted, he fell into unconsciousness until the sun rose again.
How long had he floated between two worlds? He remembered the cliff, but not much more. He sensed Kit was in danger and that he had to find his way back. He scratched the whiskers on his face—probably three days of growth.
Where are you, lass?
If he had to crawl back to the cliff, he would. He packed up his few supplies and rose to his knees. He put one foot on the ground, grabbed the tree, and pushed to his feet, swaying. Dizziness made him nauseous. He’d never been this sick or in as much pain.
The bright sunlight stabbed into his eyes with knife-like precision. He had no hat and tried to shield his eyes with his hand while he studied the surrounding terrain. How in the hell did he get on the opposite side of the river? He had no memory of crossing. Finding his way back would take time. Time he didn’t have. He took his first step, unsure of where it would lead or what he would find. A quote by Lao-tzu, the Chinese philosopher came to mind: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
WEARY AND CAUTIOUS, Cullen approached the cliff where he had last seen Kit. The smell of rotting flesh roiled his stomach. He steeled himself and prepared to find a scene worse than South Pass. As he stepped free of the trees, the stink of decomposing bodies hit him with redoubled force. On the ground lay three blood-soaked, maggot-covered men.
What happened here?
Although he didn’t remember, relief swept through him like a hard, swirling wind. Kit wasn’t there. Tears welled in his eyes, and he wept unashamedly. Her face flashed before him and he heard her scream his name. Although he was far away, he heard anguish in her voice.
He searched the ground for tracks and found several, mostly trampled over each other, but there was one clear set—Henry’s horse, Charley.
If Henry came looking for them he would have found Kit and carried her off. Cullen studied the ground again looking for signs she had fallen or been dragged, but found nothing. He stood at the cliff’s edge for an unmeasured time, squeezing his temples to relieve the pressure in his head. The breeze rippled through the pine, whispering a single word, hurry. He’d delayed too long. The confrontation occurred, three maybe four days ago. That would put Kit at least two days ahead of him, assuming she and Henry spent time looking for him. With the way he felt, he wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough to catch them. His only hope was to find a fellow traveler willing to sell him a horse.
If Kit believed he was dead, she would go to San Francisco as soon as she arrived in Oregon City. No matter where she went, he would find her. He didn’t believe she would go back to her time, not before talking to Braham. She would take a stagecoach from Oregon City. Astride a good horse, he could catch her en route.
With a cold sweat streaming between his shoulder blades, he set out to find his bride.
FIVE DAYS LATER, as the afternoon sun filtered through the grand firs towering overhead, Cullen caught up with his wagon train camped at Laurel Hill. He could have purchased an entire herd for what he had paid for the sorry looking horse he bought off a family he’d met on the trail, but without the nag, he wouldn’t have caught up with his friends for another week.
He found John and Henry at the top of Laurel Hill’s first drop, a two-hundred-forty-foot vertical descent. Leaning against a tree trunk, arms folded, the sole of his boot flat against the bark, Cullen watched the two men study the deeply eroded trail.
John stared down the hill’s scree-covered chute. “Don’t care what you say, Henry. Damn near impossible to do this.”
“We’ll lock the wheels and anchor the wagons with ropes. Plenty of folks have done it before us.” Henry pointed to several trees lining the chute. “Look at the rope burns.”
Cullen cleared his throat. “How’d you get anything done without me?”
John and Henry spun around, flashing raised brushy brows.
Henry lunged forward with open arms. “Where the hell have you been?”
Cullen eased back, his good arm extended, protectively. “Don’t give me one of your bear hugs.”
Henry stopped mid-stride.
“I’m pretty beat up,” Cullen said.
Henry settled for a handshake.
“Where’s Kit?” Cullen asked.
“Come on. Let’s head back to camp. You can tell us what happened to you,” Henry said.
“As soon as I kiss my wife, I’ll tell you.” Neither John or Henry spoke, but color slipped from their faces. “You got something to say. Spit it out.”
John shuffled his feet.
Fear struck Cullen square in the solar plexus. “Tell me she’s alive.”
Henry nodded but avoided eye contact. “Alive and unharmed.”
Alive and unharmed. Henry wouldn’t lie, but he would withhold information. Cullen had no doubt he was doing exactly that.
“Let’s walk over to camp. Get a cup of coffee. We’ll talk.” Henry said.
Had those damned bastards killed his baby? Was that what Henry hesitated to tell him? Whatever had happened, he and Kit would recover from the tragedy together.
Cullen spotted Sarah the moment the men arrived in camp. She stood at the cook stove stirring a steamy pot just as he had seen her do a hundred times before. Where was Kit? He looked around the circle. Another shot of fear coursed through him, burning hot as the bullet that had pierced his skin.
“Where is she, Sarah?”
She dropped her spoon, her eyes unnaturally wide. “Cullen.”
“By God, somebody better tell me where she is before I rip this camp apart.”
Tears welled in Henry’s eyes. “No need for that.”
“Tell me where she is. Now. ”
Sarah squeezed his arm. “She started bleeding and cramping—”
“We followed the river for miles. Couldn’t find any sign you came ashore,” Henry said.
“I don’t have any memory of being shot or of falling. There were three dead men on the cliff. Who killed them?”
“The one who shot you fell and hit his head. The other two bled out.”
A small hand tugged Cullen’s shirtsleeve. He glanced down at Frances and saw wide, faith-filled eyes. “Miss Kit went home. Can you bring her back?”
Went home? He raised his eyebrows in a silent question.
A sob broke from Sarah’s lips. “Kit had symptoms, same as me. She didn’t want to lose the baby. She went home five days ago. Back to where she came from.”
Cullen slumped against a chair; his heart lurched in his chest. “She lost faith in me,” he said in a tormented whisper.
Henry shook his head. “Kit wanted to believe you were alive, but she needed a doctor to save the babe.”
Cullen walked away from his friends and headed into the forest, carrying his silent screams. He breathed deeply of the scented pine, drawing air into his lungs, holding it while he listened to the sounds in the conifer woods. Even the trees seemed to know Kit’s name. He took another breath. This time the scent he breathed in wasn’t pine, but vanilla. And the magical sound echoing through the trees wasn’t chipmunks and songbirds, it was her laughter living in the music of the forest. It was the beauty of her smile held in the glint of the afternoon sun. It was the tender touch of her hand gliding through the whispering wind.
He stumbled over twisted roots and fell into dark shadows, upon a wall of pine needles and heavy underbrush. He had no reason to get up and begged for unconsciousness to rescue him once again. But sleep wouldn’t come. He rode a plunging angry wave, approaching the beach with tremendous velocity.
And he broke.
A guttural sob forced its way up from deep inside his gut and hung in the back of his throat for one long tormented moment before bursting through his lips. The sobs kept coming each more ferocious than the last until he had no voice left, and his heart beat without purpose against the pine-covered forest floor.
CULLEN WOKE SEVERAL hours later, heartsick over his failure to keep Kit safe. If he added in his four failed attempts as a ghost, he had quite a history. Then he remembered Kit’s ghost sighting the day she left her time. Why did she have a vision of him at Thomas MacKlenna’s gravesite? That never made any sense, now even less so.
Or did it?
Cullen tensed for a moment then sat straight up. What was today’s date? He wasn’t sure. The second week in August, possibly. He rubbed his temples, hoping to assuage the pain in his head. Thomas MacKlenna would die in five months—January 25, 1853. Cullen thought through possibilities. What connection could he have with MacKlenna? None that he could think of, but Kit did have a vision of him. Suddenly, he had a real sense that he would find the answer to Kit’s return at MacKlenna Farm, but only if he arrived before Thomas died.
If he was going cross-country again, he had no time to waste.
His plan sent a shiver of anticipation coursing through him. Now, filled with purpose, he rushed back to the Barretts’ campsite.
“Coffee’s hot,” John said.
Cullen poured a cup and sat at the table.
“’Bout to go look for you,” Henry said.
Cullen sipped his coffee. “Had some thinking to do.”
Henry puffed on his pipe. “You going to San Francisco?”
“Going there first, then on to the MacKlenna Farm.”
“Must have a pretty good reason for making your fourth crossing in two years.”
Cullen shrugged. “All I know is that I have to go.”
“A man knowing what to do is enough reason for me. I’ll go with you?”
The moon offered faint shafts of illumination in the forest, enough to cast a pale of light across Henry’s determined face. His salt-and-pepper hair had turned mostly salt during the journey.
“Appreciate the offer, but there’s no need. I’m sailing east this time. Soon as we get the wagons down the hill, I’m going to San Francisco to talk to Braham. Then I’ll sail on the first ship leaving port.”
Henry didn’t say anything. He just calmly knocked the dottle from his pipe with a single hard tap.
“Can you get her back?” John asked.
“Probably not in this lifetime.” Cullen’s voice sounded oddly out of place to him, as if perhaps he already was the ghost of MacKlenna Farm.